On his way out the door, JEA board chair Tom Petway dropped a major bomb. The time, he said, had come to reconsider selling the municipal utility.
Petway’s suggestion that Jacksonville consider selling the utility was so shocking, it completely eclipsed the surprising news that he was abruptly departing the board he hadn’t been on long enough to even warm up his chair. Petway’s resignation should have made headlines, but in the mad dash to report and attempt to analyze his proposal, his desertion got at most a couple of paragraphs.
You will recall that in 2015, The Florida Times-Union revealed that among the four months’ worth of JEA board members’ emails it had requested, there was evidence board meetings were being coordinated and essentially scripted with input from the executive staff. Boy, oh, boy, did City Hall come a-crowing after that, tossing around words like “puppets” and “revamp.” Everyone knew the problem wasn’t so much that the board was being manipulated by executive staff, but that they’d been stupid enough to do so via email. But no matter. Within weeks, the board had been stocked with Currycrats. Just as Mayor Lenny Curry wished.
A lot of people guessed the move had come from the mayor’s office all along, but at the time, no one could quite figure out his agenda.
Two years later, we have our answer: to privatize, aka sell, JEA.
When Petway delivered those twin mic-drop moments, nobody doubted for a second that the suggestion to sell off one of the city’s most important and largest assets had come from the mayor’s office. After all, Petway was Curry’s biggest backer in the 2015 election. No way he was making this move without Curry’s blessing.
So now the board Curry appointed is rushing to do his bidding like any good puppet-on-a-string would do. Only god and Brian Hughes know what he’s got on them and why they’re so willing to kiss the ring. After all, most of them are successful business people, and presumably as such, know a bad deal when they see one. Probably it’s all about money—theirs, not ours—and they see Curry as a means to an end that makes them richer.
Meanwhile, folks all over town are still wondering why on Earth anyone would think it’s a good idea to sell JEA; after all, it contributes more than $100 million to the city budget every single year. Relinquishing local control of our power, water and sewer is such a terrible idea that most don’t even know what to say about it. That, and the fact that most local pols are chickenshit scared of Curry and Brian Hughes. That chief-of-staff title might make it seem like Hughes has been leashed, but we all know it’s a very, very long leash. And the master holding the other end isn’t any less vicious.
In all honesty, at first it didn’t seem to make much sense. Here you have the largest of the city authorities, which employs thousands of locals, and absolutely churns money into the local economy and city coffers, and Mayor Accountant wants to sell it? What gives?
But if you’ve just sold the public on a pension deal that’s going to cost way, way more than you promised, basically giving them everything John Keane asked for and more in the distant past of a few years ago, and you’ve gone through two hurricanes in two years, given JSO permission to hire 100 more cops to ticket jaywalkers, handed $8.4 million to a private school for football stadiums and dorms, and secretly offered your campaign backer Peter Rummell $18 million of public money for him to buy one of the Southbank’s choicest properties, you might be worried that when all those bills come due, people are going to start questioning your intelligence and motives.
They might also wonder if basic math works the same way on Planet Curry. ’Cause on Planet Earth, when you add millions upon millions of extra expenses without raising revenue, you end up deeply in debt. Jacksonville’s credit rating is already on shaky ground, and those agencies aren’t as easily swayed as City Council. The city’s credit rating getting downgraded on any mayor’s watch doesn’t play well on the campaign trail.
But all Curry’s problems go away if he somehow convinces us to sell JEA. Then he’d be able to cover pretty much any shortfall he’s created with the one-time cool billion—at least—that JEA would bring in. That kind of money would be plenty to pay off the City Councilmembers who might balk, too. Don’t think it’s a good idea, councilor? Well, how about a fat wad of cash for that pet project to get you reelected? Deal? Deal.
Let’s be clear on something: Selling JEA is not good for the citizens of Jacksonville. It’s good for Lenny Curry, his donors and all the Currycrats panting at his feet like adoring puppies.